Sexual Abuse By Women: The Crime No One Wants To Investigate

Though awareness of childhood sexual abuse has come a long way in the past few decades, one area remains uncharted: sexual abuse by women.

Charlotte Philby looks at this, "society's last taboo," in a long and disturbing article for The Independent. It's clear from her report that sexual abuse by women can be just as devastating as abuse by men. She interviews Sharon Hall, who suffered "sustained sexual violence," and as a result became anorexic, agoraphobic, and unable to bond with her own daughter. Hall says, "the worst thing about it is that even though my mother is now dead – and never even met her granddaughter – she has managed to ruin my daughter's childhood too." Compounding her pain is the fact that doctors didn't believe she was abused, saying, "Don't be silly, mothers don't sexually abuse children." According to Philby, this response is common.

Reliable data on the prevalence of sexual abuse by women is almost impossible to come by. Philby cites one UK abuse hotline, ChildLine — 11% of its callers in 2004 reported being abused by a woman. But women make up only 1% of convicted sex offenders in England and Wales. The picture is just as complicated in the US, according to an article by Lisa Lipshires in Moving Forward Newsjournal. One report found that women were responsible in 20% of US abuse cases between 1973 and 1987, but states report their data differently, and not all divide abusers by gender. And Philby's research indicates that people may not want hard data on female sexual abusers. Anonymous sources in the British justice system told her, "they just aren't being given the tools they need to address this issue, or even being made aware that it is an issue at all." And Zoe Hilton, a policy advisor at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said, "Professionals in all areas of the system tend to be disbelieving of cases of female sexual abuse."

One therapist who studied victims of maternal incest found they suffered many of the same after-effects as those who have been abused by men: "depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and high rates of eating disorders and substance abuse." They also had "a nearly universal wish to tell society that 'this really happens.'" So why don't the US or the UK want to address sexual abuse by women? One possible reason Philby proposes is the fact that most abuse by women seems to take place in the home, and that mothers are often the perpetrators. She quotes a spokeswoman for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Services, who says, "women are perceived as the nurturers, those who are there to look after our young people." Then there's the idea (bandied about a lot in cases of teacher-student sex like that of Mary Kay LeTourneau, pictured) that sex with an older woman is a welcome experience for boys. And, Philby says, "sexual abuse is usually understood as something bound up with issues of male aggression and power."

But women can exert power and express aggression too, and viewing sexual abuse as solely a tool of the patriarchy may prevent some victims from getting help. Stereotyping women as nurturing and men as dangerous isn't just bad for men (every dad on the playground becomes a potential rapist) and women (every mom is expected to be an angel), but for children too. We need to be able to recognize when they are at risk from the women in their lives, and protect them from abuse even when it comes from unexpected places. Sexual abuse is often linked with violence against women, and while the two are frequently connected, we need to be aware of violence by women as well. Assuming every woman is a saint does no one any favors.

Female Sexual Abuse: The Untold Story Of Society's Last Taboo [The Independent]
Female Perpetration Of Child Sexual Abuse: An Overview Of The Problem [Canadian Children's Rights Council]